Some local officials opposed to armed guards at every school
After remaining silent for a week, the National Rifle Association threw itself into the national gun debate Friday by claiming the country can best protect students by stationing armed guards at every school.
That's unlikely to happen locally, according to initial reaction by some school and police officials Friday.
The gun association's Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre issued the call for more armed guards a week after Adam Lanza killed 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"I call on Congress today to act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school — and to do it now, to make sure that blanket of safety is in place when our children return to school in January," LaPierre said.
The idea of having armed guards at all schools, including elementary schools, did not sit well with either of the presidents of the Champaign and Urbana school boards.
"As a parent, I'm not supportive of putting armed security guards in front of all our schools," said Champaign board President Stig Lanesskog on Friday.
He said he supports the police officers currently stationed in the middle and high schools and said having them around has worked well. Those officers, called school resource officers, mostly focus on community-building, he said.
As a board member, Lanesskog said, he believes the issue raised by the NRA on Friday is one to talk about not only "in the heat of the moment" but to reflect on over the next couple months, especially about "how we're balancing creating an environment that may draw away from the school feel that we want versus the level of security" that armed guards may provide.
Having someone walking around the school with a weapon changes the atmosphere in a school, said Urbana school board President John Dimit.
"I didn't like the idea of arming school personnel, and I also don't really like the idea of having to have an armed presence everywhere," he said.
Urbana schools have school resource officers in the middle school and high school. Current Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb was the first school resource officer in Urbana. He declined to comment for this article.
Resource officers are part of a community-based police model that focuses on building relationships with students, considered the biggest deterrent to inappropriate behavior, Dimit said.
How can police or teachers fulfill their jobs as role models "when you're packing heat?" Dimit asked. "I just think it teaches the wrong lesson."
Although staffing armed guards at schools is an idea to be considered and discussed, there shouldn't be a knee-jerk reaction, said Larry Thomason, public safety director with the city of Danville.
It also would not be financially feasible to put officers at every school in the district, officers said. It would put a financial burden on the school districts and the municipalities, they said.
"I understand what they (NRA) are saying, but there are many things to be considered as they go forward, and I'm not ready to say there should be a police officer in every school. In my view, that would be a knee-jerk reaction. You have to look at costs and a lot of factors here," Thomason said.
The Champaign County sheriff's office staffs one full-time school resource officer in St. Joseph-Ogden High School, another in the Unity School District in Tolono, plus one assigned on a part-time basis to Carrie Busey School in Savoy. All of them are armed.
"Their function is not to be a front-door guard," Sheriff Dan Walsh said. Their primary duties are related mostly to education, including teaching driver safety, talking about bullying and similar topics, he said.
Officers spend most of their time in the high schools but also visit other schools too. This is the first year they've had anyone at Carrie Busey; the school opened in its new location this fall. Next week deputies will undergo "rapid response" training in Carrie Busey to prepare them for possible incidents. That training had been scheduled before the Sandy Hook shootings.
If trained, armed officers are stationed at every school, "it would make it hard for someone to do what happened in Connecticut — not impossible, but it gives the shooter some aggressive opposition," Walsh said.
However, his office has about 55 sworn law officers on staff, not including courthouse officers, he pointed out.
To staff all the grade schools, middle schools and high schools in its district with trained deputies, "we would have no one on patrol," Walsh said.
In the last several years, the Danville school district and Danville Police Department have partnered to assign three full-time police officers in the Danville public school system, one each at South View Middle School, North Ridge Middle School and Danville High School. The school district pays the majority of the police officers' salaries and benefits, and the city picks up the costs during the summer months when they return to city patrols.
Rather than arming staff members, Dimit said, the Urbana school district relies on the Urbana Police Department.
It is "extremely responsive" to any incident in the schools, often arriving within a minute or two, he said.
He also said panic buttons and cameras can make a difference if someone is trying to force his way into a school.
Champaign and Urbana schools review their security procedures on a regular basis, the board presidents said. Since the Sandy Hook shootings, Champaign Superintendent Judy Wiegand has met with Cobb to review security procedures in place at the schools.
"We continue to have administration review those to make sure we're doing everything we think is reasonable in that area," Lanesskog said.
Added Dimit: "Our security setup is constantly evolving as we learn new things."
News-Gazette staff writers Julie Wurth and Tracy Moss contributed to this article.